An official scenic historic marker announces, "CHAMA, population 1,199, elevation 7,850 feet." In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, this small crossroads town grew to become an important site on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the remnant of the San Juan Extension, a narrow-gauge line which once served the mining areas of southwestern Colorado.
"I came up here five years ago from Albuquerque and I absolutely love it," says Chrissy, the pretty young ticket agent. It's a spectacularly sunny day, but she's already wearing an oversized bomber jacket, reminding me we're high in the San Juan Mountains of northern New Mexico.
The jovial man in the railroad cap cruising the aisles of the passenger cars is Don Schneider, a docent for the Cumbres & Toltec. He tells us we're riding on America's longest and highest narrow gauge steam railroad. Two engines will pull us up the winding four percent grade to Cumbres Pass, and we can get great photos from the open gondola car. The first passenger cars were converted boxcars and flatcars, and the gondola once carried coal, ore, gravel, or crushed rock. The New Mexico and Colorado Railroad Authorities purchased the 64 miles of track in 1970 in order to preserve it.
"Some people call this a tourist attraction," says Don. "but we call it a living museum." Steam locomotives are rare in America today.
From West Hills, California, Don and his wife, Nancy, drive up in their RV for two months every year. "We'd been coming for four years and decided to give something back," he adds.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company (D&RG) was established in 1870 to build a railroad along the Rio Grande River from Denver to El Paso, Texas. The decision was made to build narrow gauge (rails 3 feet apart) instead of standard gauge (rails 4 feet, 8 ½ inches apart) because it was cheaper and equipment cost less. Also sharper curves were possible, making it better adapted to the mountains. D&RG was the first railroad to use air brakes, which are operated by increasing rather than reducing the air pressure.
At an elevation of 8,303 feet, we pass Lobato Siding, where a flimsy depot and fake water tank were built in the '70s for the movie "Shootout", starring Gregory Peck. Our docent tells us other movies filmed along the Cumbres & Toltec line were "The Fortune", "Missouri Breaks", "Butch and Sundance: The Early Years", and "Wyatt Earp", with Kevin Costner. Commercials, documentaries, and even a music video featuring the trains, buildings, and unspoiled, remote landscape also have been filmed in the area.
"Here comes the Lobato Trestle," announces Don. This iron deck-plate girder bridge is 100 feet high and 310 feet long. Far below is a tiny stream. At this point our second engine is separated because of weight restrictions, the rest of the train proceeds across the trestle, and the two engines are again connected.
From my vantage point on this platform I can hear a low rattling beneath me of the metal connections between the cars, the murmur of passengers inside the car, and the train whistle. Aspen leaves dance in the glittering afternoon sunlight and the train makes a rhythmic, confident, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk sound, as if to say, I'm a train that knows what I'm doing.
We cross New Mexico's Highway 17, lined with wild sunflowers and spotted with delayed tourists who wave cheery hellos. We are now in Colorado.
This is a remote area of the two states. D&RG engineering parties originally examined the mountain range dividing the Rio Grande River from the San Juan River with the intent to secure the best line to the town of Silverton, in the heart of the San Juan mining country. The Cumbres Pass route they chose was longer, but not as high as the other pass, and thus less difficult to build and maintain. Cumbres means "crests" or "summits" in Spanish, and the C&T is one of the highest railroads in the United States. During the winter, this place is smothered in snow. From Cumbres Pass on we no longer need the second engine.
We pass water tanks, snow fences, sites of former freight train derailments, and even a remote, isolated phone booth. Tree-covered hillsides sweep down into the Los Pinos Valley. We travel across 408 feet of iron trestle across the Cascade Creek, and a mile further another trestle across Osier Creek.
Osier, Colorado, at 9,637 feet is our scheduled lunch stop. A "good meal" here in 1880 cost 75 cents; our lunch is included in our train fare. In this remote dining facility lunch is served cafeteria style. Our choices are hot turkey with trimmings and biscuits, or hot meatloaf with mashed potatoes, or soup and salad, or a vegetarian menu. Everything is prepared here, even though there is no electricity, only gas, a generator, and water from wells. The rest of this isolated, high open valley is dotted with summer homes that in the winter are covered with snow, with no way in or out.
Back on board, the route passes a monument to President James Garfield, who was shot in a Washington, D.C. railroad station in 1881. The terrain opens as it approaches the high plains, abundant with piñon pines and juniper.
We meet docents Frank and Joanne Yockey from Loveland, Colorado. "We see deer and elk and antelope in the hills," Frank says. There are also "a lot of black bear, but you don't see 'em very often."
In charge of the docent program and on the Board of Directors for the Cumbres & Toltec, Frank is a retired business manager and Joanne's a retired special ed teacher. "I always love the ride from Chamas to Cumbres," she says. "I love the Parlor Car, to watch the workers fire the enginesit's just really exciting." This year they've been volunteering for seven weeks. They arrived Memorial Day week-end and will stay until the railroad closes for the season, the third Sunday in October.
One of only three narrow gauge tunnels ever built, the Rock or Toltec Tunnel we pass through is 366 feet long, blasted out of Precambrian rock using black powder. "The Rock Tunnel was all done by hand in the 1880s," Frank says.
It's 700 feet down to the valley floor, and expired telegraph poles line the tracks. When the steam engine blows, I can feel a mist on my face. Docent Don passes through the cars, grins, and says, "Watch that first step to the right, it's a doozie."
To the south are expansive views of the Rio de los Pinos Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and San Antonio Peak. In these high mountain meadows the stately ponderosas are a stark contrast to the sunflowers, mustards, golden asters, lupines, and thistles.
The track descends from the foothills of the San Juan Mountains, and vegetation changes. The valley floor becomes low sagebrush and native grasses, yellow-crested rabbitbush and purple bee plants and yellow clovers.
We arrive at the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad eastern terminus, the station at Antonito, Colorado around 5 p.m. It's windy and brisk, but still a brilliant fall day. Two buses await to transport us back to Chama, about an hour trip.
Every summer volunteers like Don and Nancy and Frank and Joanne, members of the Friends of the CT&S Railroad, arrive in the Chama River valley. At their own expense they stay in RVs or at the town's only hotel while they work on projects in increments of two-week commitments.
"Part of the purpose of the Friends," says Frank, "is restoration, preservation, and historic interpretation of the railroad."
"This is truly a living museum for future generations to enjoy," adds Don.
Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Las Vegas Correspondent.